Tinkerers No More

Dating back to at least the 1500s, tinkering was once considered not only an honorable profession, but an essential one. The tinker, or tinsmith, would start out as an apprentice fixing utilitarian items from pie pans to milk pails, laboring toward the day when they might become a master with their own shop. Then the smith would craft and repair the most complex utensils and household technology of the day.

As with many antique surnames still in use, Tinker became a family symbol and crest which far outlasted the trade. And yet today the word has taken on a trivial, if not pejorative connotation. The irate parent will tell their inquisitive child, “Don’t tinker with that!” Tinkering now implies an inept, bungling penetration of items which are considered off-limits to the consumer.

This is a topic which has weighed heavily on my mind since recently finishing “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” Matthew B. Crawford’s eye-opening philosophical treatise. The author holds a PhD in political philosophy and served as the head of a beltway think tank before winding up working as a motorcycle mechanic. While many would view such a career arc as a disastrous failure, Crawford took that path by intent and finds time to share revelations on what he regards as the “useful arts.”

He notes that many of today’s small metalwork and carpentry shops are equipped with machinery -- ranging from lathes to band saws and beyond -- which was purchased on the cheap at auctions held by public schools. Many of today’s younger readers will have no experience with this, but at one time nearly every public school offered shop classes as part of their standard curriculum. (At least for the boys. Girls took home economics.)

Beginning in the 1980s schools across the nation began to abandon these programs, partly as cost-cutting measures in the face of increasingly tight budgets, but more as the practical fallout of a shift in scholastic philosophy. We moved toward preparing students for a place in the knowledge economy, as it is known, and away from any form of manual labor.

The trades, as they were called, increasingly became a target of derision. Comics of all stripes would refer to seemingly slow-witted children as being destined for “a job with their name on their shirt.” If the child was not headed toward a career in medicine, the legal professions, Wall Street, or advanced design engineering, they were somehow seen as second-class citizens. Similar disdain was heaped upon youths seeking a career in the military rather than advanced studies in the ivy-covered halls of academia.

A tremendous amount of mental gymnastics is required for people of this mindset when their toilet backs up and the plumber they summon to restore one of the fundamental requirements of civilization charges them fifty dollars per hour in labor. If you buy an older home and need to seriously upgrade the wiring, you will first need to arrange for the services of an Underwriters Lab approved electrician. That contractor will soon give you a lesson in the real cost of the skills and services provided by such “trade level” craftsmen.

One of the great ironies in all this arises from the emphasis we place on keeping our children away from dirty tools and professions where one might actually get a suntan without paying for it at a spa. The author notes numerous articles in trade magazines bemoaning the lack of workers in fields such as welding, lighting, heating, and air conditioning. This is happening today, at the same time that countless holders of advanced white collar degrees are moving back in with their parents and taking jobs at the local Starbucks.

Beyond the group psychology shift in attitudes towards the knowledge economy, Crawford delves deeply into the fundamental nature of the relationship between modern man and what he refers to as “our stuff.” Our aversion to tools, he points out, has become more symptom than cause when we look at the types of products we seek out.

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they one fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.